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Smokin' ace

Beckett is king of the hill

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SAN DIEGO -- A battle featuring two high-end pitchers in the midst of breakout seasons went the way of the Red Sox, who wore down Padres ace Jake Peavy en route to a 4-2 victory in the rubber match of the three-game Interleague series at PETCO Park on Sunday.

It no longer seems to matter which pitcher or team Josh Beckett faces these days. He's been that good. The Padres became his latest victim on a day the right-hander ran his record to 11-1 and lowered his ERA to 3.07.

"I don't know if it's just today," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "He pitched today the way he's pitched pretty much all year. Explosive fastball, good breaking ball -- some changeups at times in the game really kept them off the fastball."

Beckett (eight innings, six hits, two runs and eight strikeouts) has never been an All-Star, but that seems all but certain to change when the squads are unveiled on July 1.

Peavy, meanwhile, might face Beckett again in that July 10 spectacle in San Francisco. Even after this defeat, Peavy's numbers (9-2, 2.14 ERA) are still dazzling.

"Any time you're going against Jake Peavy, it's going to be a tough day," Beckett said. "We were fortunate to get a couple of big hits with guys in scoring position, and [the] guys picked me up. To score three runs against him, you're not expecting to get that much."

If the Padres thought Beckett was tough over the first eight, there was no letup when Jonathan Papelbon came in for the ninth inning, amid the roars of the big bandwagon of Sox fans that ventured out to San Diego for the weekend. Papelbon did not disappoint, firing high-octane gas and striking out the first two in a 1-2-3 ninth.

"That's what he's supposed to do," Francona said. "When you can get to him and not overuse people, he had a chance to pitch like he pitches. That's why we're trying to be, I don't know if the word is careful or prudent or conscientious, but he has that ability. We just need to not overuse him."

The game could be looked at in two ways. Beckett, who threw 116 pitches over eight innings, had better command of the strike zone than Peavy (111 pitches over five). Or was it that the Boston batters simply grinded Peavy so much that it only looked like he didn't have that same command as Beckett.

"I'm glad I'm on this team and not on a team where I have to face this team, because they grind," said Beckett. "There's not too many guys that get through five innings [against us] without 95 or 100 pitches. He pitched a good game; it's just one of those deals where we grind at-bats out."

The grind factor was never bigger than in the third inning, when the Red Sox worked Peavy for some 38 pitches and scored three runs.

Coco Crisp started it innocently enough with a one-out bloop single to center. Alex Cora -- making something happen as he always does when he starts -- followed with a single to right. David Ortiz stepped up next and rifled one out of the reach of second baseman Geoff Blum and into right for an RBI single that broke the scoreless tie. Manny Ramirez then got the job done, lifting a sac fly to right to make it 2-0.

J.D. Drew kept the inning alive by hitting a grounder that Blum couldn't field clean. He was credited with an infield hit. Mike Lowell went to the opposite field for a single that brought home Ortiz from second, giving Beckett a three-run cushion. By that time, Peavy had thrown 71 pitches and you could tell he was not going to be in for a long day.

"I thought we did a great job," Francona said. "And to add on the three that we did was huge also. He's obviously, if not the best, one of the best in the game. We did make him work hard. Fortunately for us, one of the other best is on our team. He was great."

The Padres came up with their only breakthrough against Beckett in the fifth. It started with a leadoff walk to Kevin Kouzmanoff. Blum followed with a single up the middle, and pinch-hitter Terrmel Sledge brought two runs home with a double to center.

But Beckett protected the 3-2 lead, sending down the next three hitters and ending the inning by striking out Adrian Gonzalez on a nasty curveball. It might have been Beckett's best bender of the day.

"Well, that's when you need your best one," Beckett said. "You definitely want to break it out in one of those situations. He's the guy in their clubhouse you don't want to let beat you, and he was up in a spot where he could have done that."

Kouzmanoff later produced a big scare to the Red Sox, pummeling a drive to left that Ramirez caught just in front of the wall to start the seventh.

Did Francona think it was gone?

"Oh yeah," Francona said. "Even right now. Yeah."

Beckett realizes he got away with one.

"Hanging curveball," Beckett said. "This field plays so big; in a lot of ballparks, it definitely could have been a home run. It's one of those deals where you thank God for where you're playing."

Jason Varitek gave the Sox an insurance run in the eighth inning, clubbing a solo homer over the wall in center on a 3-0 pitch from Scott Linebrink.

"I don't always swing on 3-0, but I was looking for something to handle and was able to put a good swing on it," said Varitek.

Varitek, hitting .272 with eight homers and 33 RBIs, doesn't light up the stat sheet. But his hits seem to have a habit of counting.

"He's awesome," Beckett said. "There's a reason he's got that 'C' on his jersey, because he's the captain. Inside the clubhouse and out there [on the field], he's been great for all of us."

But perhaps not even the captain has more valuable to the Red Sox this season than Beckett, who looks primed to be back in a more northern part of California for a certain other game in July.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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